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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Scattered Pictures From the Past, Present : DANCER WITH BRUISED KNEES by Lynne McFall ; Chronicle Books; $18.95, 216 pages

November 25, 1994|ELLEN AKINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sarah Blight, narrator of this second novel by Lynne McFall, begins by handing around a few photographs that hold some sense of where she's come from. And then the sad woman tells us where she went from there.

It's only a short way into this short book that we realize we've already been there--that those pictures in the first few pages summed up the whole story--and so we start to wonder just what Sarah's after, what this novel's doing.

Here's a scene that might explain at least the author's method: Walking across a bridge on her family's property, Sarah feels it sway and creak.

What does she do? She jumps up and down on it, "but this time it didn't give," she tells us. "It seemed dangerous, though we had been driving over it all our lives."

The scenes and events of Sarah's life, captured in those photographs, are in for some testing here as well. As a bridge from the past to the present, they sway and creak, too, and under scrutiny reveal the uncertainty of what seems most familiar, the treacherous ambiguity of what seems most certain.

This novel is, in short, an extended reflection on the nature of truth as we distill it from the malleable substance and intransigent facts of our days.

"What is knowledge," Sarah asks, "except the best story we can tell, with the few facts we have, what we are unwilling to give up?" And this is Sarah's best story.

At the outset, on the eve of her 40th birthday, she is profoundly depressed, and with good reason. One look at her family, and you might say she has a genetic predisposition for manic depression.

In one of our earliest glimpses of her mother--agoraphobic now, sitting all day smoking Camels in front of the television--the woman takes 5-year-old Sarah on her lap and tells her, "I hate to be the one to bring the bad news, I'm very sorry, but there is no Santa Claus." She adds for good measure, "There is no God."

Sarah's father is an alcoholic whose farming has given way to dreams of being a filmmaker in the manner of Terrence Malick. One of her uncles went to prison for murder. Another committed suicide. And her older brother Morgan is a truly twisted sadist whose childhood "games" with Sarah (Russian roulette is just one) make her mere survival seem a miracle.

That's the clan. We've seen plenty of eccentric families in novels, but this one's certifiable, and Sarah's back in the bosom of it after the breakup of her latest long love affair.

Possessed, she does those things that people on the edge of erotic derangement consider but rarely do, including, finally, confronting her ex-boyfriend and his current paramour. When the encounter turns violent, the new girl puts out Sarah's eye with a pool cue.

*

As if that's not enough to mire a woman in the slough of despondency, her brother has been accused of murdering his ex-wife, her mother and father have separated over the issue of his guilt, her ex-husband has disowned their son, and her beloved grandmother is disappearing into the mists of Alzheimer's (where she can't remember anymore that she's a Christian Scientist).

It's high time Sarah reviewed the circumstances, considered how all this happened, how they all came to such a pass and how she fits into the picture.

Her story, by way of the photographs--those she's found, those she's taken and those she simply imagines--puts together the telling moments, often rendered with macabre wit, and tries to make sense of them.

Here we have Sarah adjusting to the grief and horrors of this miserable year, and there we have images plucked from years past. We see Morgan, boy terror, killing her cats, throwing her down a well, forcing her to "fly" out a window; then when the grown-up Morgan, calling from prison, tells her she's the only one he trusts, we go back for clues to why this moves her. We visit Sarah's ex-husband, then revisit their marriage and look for the ties that still bind these two together. We meet her ex-boyfriend at his sexiest, then try to break his spell with a few punishing dreams.

And when Morgan gets out and all hell breaks loose, we finally see him in a clear and brutal fashion.

As Sarah lays out her pictures, one answers another; a fond memory counters an impoverished image of the present, a childhood snapshot bolsters today's fuzzy impression, a trying moment conjures a corrective fantasy.

It's a patchy novel, and could have used more in the way of plot, but then it wouldn't be the book it is, which on one level questions the expectations we bring to the novel, that conferrer of patterns on the disorder of life. More in the manner of a photo album, "Dancer With Bruised Knees" derives its order from the impulse to look, then look again, and try to see what made us look in the first place.

"How much sense does it make anyway?" Sarah wonders late in the book. "Proof. You can't prove most of the important things in life--whether, for instance, there is even a point to living."

Ultimately this book is about learning to live with the lack--and if the truth that Sarah is after turns out to be provisional, it works anyway and there's hope in that.

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